It’s a trip: On board the weird, wired world of Anthem of the Seas

CNN  — 

When Royal Caribbean’s huge Anthem of the Seas cruise ship rumbled smoothly out to sea on its maiden commercial trip last week, it carried a strange cargo alongside its 4,000-plus passengers.

There were the usual vacation-at-sea trappings – restaurants, bars, pools and ranks of identical loungers.

But stowed alongside the spangly array of gadgets designed to entertain guests as they frolic from sun deck to dance floor was something the cruise industry is lately preoccupied with.

Its vision of the future.

As visions go, the Anthem of the Seas’ is pretty far out.

Bionic bartenders, wall-to-wall touch screens, “virtual balconies,” fast Wi-Fi and suites of Xboxes are at the relatively normal end of this brave new hi-tech water world.

After that it all starts getting slightly psychedelic, with giant giraffes, mind-bending artwork and an interesting line of super-positive wall slogans.

Anthem is the second of three “quantum class” cruise liners commissioned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean International to cater to upscale, more technologically minded thrill-seekers.

The ship, and its already launched sister, Quantum of the Seas, are designed to explore fresher, younger territory for an industry keen to expand beyond senior vacationers.

Breaking bottle news: The Anthem of the Seas was named at a ceremony held onboard while the boat was dockside in Southampton, England.

New cruise ship smell

CNN got a chance to look around the vessel a few days before its maiden voyage, when it was berthed in the UK port of Southampton to host a lavish naming ceremony that culminated with the customary bottle of champagne smashing into its hull.

It’s impressive – in a way that you’d hope a ship costing approximately $1 billion and taking five years and six million man hours to complete would be impressive.

Cruise fans will love it.

Chandeliers dangle from ceilings.

Dining and drinking venues look classy.

Everything seems well made and finished to perfection.

Right now it still has that new $1 billion cruise ship smell.

It’s a massive ship – alongside its sister, Anthem is the world’s third-largest cruise ship.

Its 18 decks – containing a vast hotel, mall and leisure complex – loom over the dockside, an improbable spectacle of modern marine engineering.

Inside, the ship has been neatly parceled into areas for shopping, sleeping, entertainment and indulgence, a trick that avoids overwhelming passengers with the sense of how huge it all is.

The 168,666 ton leviathan is – as a useful Royal Caribbean fact file points out – almost as tall as Big Ben and longer than five Boeing 747s placed end to end.

It’s bow engines create the same horsepower as 96 Formula 1 race cars.

With 2,090 cabins (or “staterooms”) it claims to have more guest accommodation than the tallest hotel in the world.

Of 1,600 crew, some 1,400 are involved in looking after up to 4,900 passengers.

Easy on the prunes

Is it possible to be sea sick and air sick at the same time?

Darren Budden, a cruise-weathered Royal Caribbean veteran who serves as Anthem’s hotel operations manager, is their boss.

With the air of a man who’s seen it all at sea, he tells CNN of the main challenges facing his crew.

“If you’re running a land-based resort like the Bellagio in Las Vegas and you get a sudden increase in demand for Grey Goose vodka, you can send someone down to the ABC liquor store to buy more,” he says.

“On a ship what you have is what you have. You have to be self-sustainable.”

One of the toughest gigs on the ship, says Budden, is the work of the inventory manager who must ensure the cupboards don’t run bare.

“He makes forecasts based on the demographic. So he looks at things like age, to see how many prunes we’re going to go through.”

Anthem’s appeal to younger passengers, fortified by attractions such as bumper cars, a skydiving simulator, the “North Star” hydraulic arm viewing capsule and a “FlowRider” surfing pool, will presumably allow it to run on a surfeit of prunes.

Rebecca Flynn, 39, one of several hundred passengers invited on board for a preview sailing ahead of the maiden voyage, says the ship is more youth oriented than the previous four cruises she’s experienced.

“It amazing, the technology has turned everything about cruising on its flip side,” she says.

“People usually think of it as something that appeals to older not younger people, but older people might actually struggle with this one.”

Sober statistics

Bottles overhang the robot bartenders as they mix up tomorrow's hangovers.

To be fair, travelers of any age might struggle with the ship’s “bionic” bartenders – robotic arms that mix drinks ordered via touch screen tablets, then decant them into plastic glasses.

It’s a fun gimmick, customers were giving the heavy-handed pours a big thumbs up, but one that requires attendants to explain how it all works.

Like many of the Anthem’s features though, the robot barman could quickly lose its magic, especially when its video screens start displaying sober and mildly depressing statistics about how many Cosmopolitans people in each age group have drunk over the course of the voyage.

Cruise agnostics may begin to feel hemmed once they’ve tried all the attractions.

At which point, the ship’s highly surreal artworks and the relentlessly upbeat messages painted on its walls, such as “Being tired is only a state of mind,” may only make matters worse.

Budden is all too aware that cruises don’t work out for everyone.

“You see the best of people and the worst of people,” he says. “People are traveling with family, and they’re not used to spending time with each other, but most people are able to have a fantastic time.”

He says the crew – all of whom seem engaged in making the new vessel a success – are used to trying to help people for whom cruises can be a struggle, although there are limits.

“From time to time we get requests from people with a predisposition toward cleanliness who want their rooms fitted with new sheets, pillows and carpets.

“We do our best to accommodate them, but providing them with new carpets isn’t something that’s in our business model.”

Germ-free sailing

Don't handle the handles: On board hygiene advice.

Cleanliness doesn’t appear to be an issue on the Anthem.

Thanks no doubt to recent Norovirus outbreaks on other cruise ships, there’s an obsession with hygiene bordering on OCD.

Hand-sanitizer dispensers are everywhere, bathroom signage urges passengers to use paper towels when touching door handles and one zealous crew member was insisting everyone wash their hands before entering the ship’s Windjammer complimentary buffet area.

During a mandatory onboard safety drill, a safety video telling passengers what to do in case of disaster is followed by an equally lengthy message, starring a cartoon octopus and backed by a disturbingly catchy song, about the importance of washing hands.

The octopus song is enough to drive anyone into one of eight theme bars and lounges or live music and cabaret shows just to get the tune out of their head.

Among these is perhaps the most significant place in the ship: Michael’s Genuine Pub.

Aside from the fact it’s not actually a genuine pub, because it’s a bar on a cruise ship, it’s a nice-looking venue. Wood-paneled, dark and serving its own branded craft ale.

With no windows out to sea, it’s almost as if it’s trying to be as unlike something on a cruise ship as possible.

Perhaps that’s the real future of cruising: being able to forget you’re on a cruise ship.

The Anthem of the Seas is currently booking for European destinations. In winter 2015/16 she’s scheduled to transfer to Bayonne, New Jersey.